By Megan Poinski
By a slim margin, a bill that limits the governor’s time to take action on parole recommendations for inmates serving life sentences passed the House of Delegates with a 74 to 66 vote Tuesday morning. It needed 71 votes for final passage.
The bill has been vigorously debated by the full House over the past week. Supporters say it gives hope to those who are sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, and returns accountability to the process.
Current law gives the governor sole discretion to parole inmates serving life sentences, after he receives a favorable recommendation from the Parole Commission. Some governors do not act on these recommendations; Gov. Martin O’Malley currently has 50 awaiting action.
Under the bill, the governor has 90 days to make a decision on a parole recommendation. If he does not act in that time frame, the inmate is released. The legislation also requires the person being paroled to have served at least 25 years, 10 more years than some inmates with life sentences must serve now.
“The governor uses his current inaction to transform the possibility of parole to no parole at all,” said Del. Joseph Vallario, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Opponents vigorously disagreed, saying the bill gives some of the state’s worst criminals a “get out of jail free card.” Minority Leader Tony O’Donnell went over the violent crimes that some of the inmates waiting on O’Malley’s desk for parole decisions committed. Referring to the high rate of recidivism for some paroled inmates, he said that he did not want to be responsible for a bill that allows more of those inmates to get out of prison and commit further crimes.
“Ask yourself this question: Do you want to be responsible for letting someone out to commit murder?” O’Donnell asked.
But Del. Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery County, responded that the General Assembly is not using the bill to abdicate any responsibility. Under the bill, the governor still can deny recommendations for parole. He just has to do it within 90 days. If the bill becomes law, it would make the governor’s inaction on these recommendations an affirmative action, forcing him to do something. Simmons said it actually restores accountability, forcing the governor to make a decision.
“There has been a lot of conversation not to enlighten, but to frighten,” Simmons said.
Responding to questions, Vallario said that when a judge sentences an inmate to life in prison with the possibility of parole, the judge is thinking that the inmate may rehabilitate himself and be able to readjust to society.
“All this says is if it goes to the governor, he has to act one way or another,” Vallario said.
A companion bill in the Senate is still pending in the Judicial Proceedings Committee.